Wild Boys of the Road

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Eddie: [to judge] I knew all that stuff about you helping us was baloney. I'll tell you why we can't go home—because our folks are poor. They can't get jobs and there isn't enough to eat. What good will it do you to send us home to starve? You say you've got to send us to jail to keep us off the streets. Well, that's a lie. You're sending us to jail because you don't want to see us. You want to forget us. But you can't do it because I'm not the only one. There's thousands just like me, and there's more hitting the road every day.

Tommy: You read in the papers about giving people help. The banks get it. The soldiers get it. The breweries get it. And they're always yelling about giving it to the farmers. What about us? We're kids!

These are kids. In William Wellman’s depression-era Wild Boys of the Road – these young people jumping trains, fighting off railway men, scraping and scrapping to survive – are, really, just kids. Not wizened hoboes or street-smart tough guys – kids. In gorgeously-gritty, location-shot scenes with an unflinching documentary feel, they hop trains, quick and nimble, for they are full of life and vigor, but their vulnerability against those hulking steam engines is ever noticeable – they always appear like they could be squashed like bugs – by the merciless machines and, certainly, by society. And, indeed, one of the kids is run over – his leg will be amputated.

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Even as positive and as tough as some of them try to remain, you feel an air of doom for these likable young people, you see their innocence and belief in something brighter on the precipice of fading away. (One of the girls, in a terrifying scene, is raped by a railroad brakeman played by Ward Bond). You see that, in a few years, maybe even a few months, they’re going to become hardened, burned out or turning to full-time lives of crime, mostly out of necessity. And who could blame them? They could become another Tom Powers a la Wellman’s The Public Enemy (in which Wild Boys Frankie Darro played Powers’ childhood buddy) or just a regular down-an-outer petty thief – nothing Cagney-charisma about it – one of those types who may even eventually thieve from the more gullible, from those younger than them – stealing from who they once were. Oh, no. You sure hope they don’t become like that. You sure hope they don’t become mean and cold-hearted.

Wellman’s protagonists – here, chiefly, Darro as Eddie Smith, Edwin Phillips as Tommy Gordon and Dorothy Coonan (later Dorothy Coonan Wellman) as Sally (who dresses like a boy) – are sweet and complex and full of love for each other, and their friendship is heartbreakingly touching. So, when bad things happen to these kids, like Tommy losing his leg – you despair for them. Tommy says, before his leg is amputated, all tough and sad to Eddie: “Shucks, what do I care about an old leg? Just think, from now on, when I get a pair of new shoes, I'll only have to break in one of them.” That’s both trying to harden yourself when you’re terrified and trying to remain optimistic at the same time. It’s an understandable way to live given these kids’ circumstances, but they should be what they are at that moment – kids.

And then there’s the fact that Eddie and Tommy set out on the road because their parents couldn’t find work – the two young teens are first presented as kids going to dances and leading pretty regular lives, albeit with poverty creeping in – until their parents are crushed by the depression. They care about their parents and try what they can to help before embarking on the road (Eddie sells his beloved jalopy to help his dad and pretends he doesn’t care about it – he does care) and as they go through fear and some fun on the road, but mostly a lot of hell, they bond and care even more about each other, and you really, truly care about them. As Wellman clearly did too. This was, according to Wellman’s son, among his favorite films. In William Wellman, Jr.’s biography of his father, “Wild Bill Wellman: Hollywood Rebel,” he that the movie reminded his father “of his own troubled youth.” And he worked hard on the picture  – reportedly went over budget to maintain his on-location, documentary-style vision. It’s a beautifully shot picture (by cinematographer Arthur L. Todd) and, in moments, bracingly real, scary, particularly as it’s addressing direct social issues of the day.

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Tough, grittily realistic and uncompromising (until the end –the ending was changed and softened and feels tacked on) Wild Boys of the Road still astonishes the viewer all these decades later. It’s also exciting, incredibly tender and moving, thanks largely to Darro’s soulful performance and Wellman’s two-fisted sensitivity. Wild Boys was released the same year as Wellman’s other masterful, harrowing pre-coder, Heroes for Sale (1933 was one of those incredibly prolific pre-code years for Wellman, he released six pictures – he also shot seventeen uncredited scenes of the picture, Female) and it takes on the concerns he cared about (also visited in his 1928 picture, Beggars of Life). And taking on the concerns of kids. Again, these are kids, and Frankie Darro (who grew up in the circus with his parents – and who stood five feet three inches tall – he was around 15 here), looks, at times, even younger than he was. In stature. His face, however, is all tough and sensitive – a poignant presence, he’s already got a lot of wisdom in his eyes. But, again, he’s a kid growing up too fast.

And, so, it seems the idea that kids were the protagonists of this depression-era picture was upsetting (which is why this picture is so damn powerful) and, to some keeping tabs on the filmmaking, too upsetting. Wellman was asked to shoot an alternate happy ending. As said, it feels strange and forced, so much so, that the happiness the kids feel at the end, doesn’t seem like it’s going to last. That this was just one of those freak breaks that never happens in life and maybe it won’t even happen – for real. As detailed in William Wellman, Jr.’s biography about his father, this was not what Wellman wanted. The intended ending (after the kids are busted – for something they’re not even guilty of – Eddie was duped into a bad situation) went like this:

“The judge reads the sentencing to the youngsters: ‘Sally Clark. House of Corrections. One year, ten months. Thomas Gordon. County Farm. Eligible for probation in one year. Edward, the law compels me to send you to the State Reformatory. You will be confined there until you reach your twenty-first birthday. I’m sorry to do this—but the law leaves me no other alternative.” The three kids are ushered by an attendant from the courtroom to a waiting police vehicle. As they drive away, the teenagers stare out the window at a world they won’t be seeing for a long time. From an upper window of the court building, the judge watches their departure on the road to incarceration.”

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The ending Jack Warner insisted (as I read in Wellman, Jr.’s book) and what we see in the film now, is all three kids getting a break by a kindly judge (I’ve seen him compared to Roosevelt) who takes pity on them. See, the system isn’t so bad… Well, it’s such a weird ending that it makes Eddie’s little moment of joy upon leaving the courthouse all the more powerful because, once again, we realize that this picture is about the deep bonds of friendship (much like Wellman’s Wings and the superb Other Men’s Women – among many other pictures). Darro – a terrific acrobat (there’s another scene in which he skillfully, and thrillingly jumps into a garbage can to hide) does a series of flips, including backflips and spins on his head. He’s expressing how happy he is that he got a break. And it’s beautifully moving. But then he notices Tommy eyeing him with envy, and Eddie’s eyes fill with empathy – Tommy, with one leg, will never be able to leap and jump and flip like a young man again, his future is even more uncertain than Eddies – and you see how much Eddie, who showed the same eyes for his poor father, feels for his best friend.

No matter what that judge said that’s supposed to make us feel some hope, the world is still an uncertain place for these kids. But their hope in each other – even if the world might and probably will crush them – is enough to make one weep.

As Tommy exclaims, “What about us? We're kids!”


The Rebel Rousers & Psych-Out

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“So in ’67, we do this little motorcycle movie, Cameron Mitchell, the group of six, plus Miss Diane. We’ve got a little swagger under our belts. We’ve got ‘The Wild Angels’, which did okay. Jack has already done almost a decade of independent movies on his own, plus working for Roger. I’d been around almost a decade now. I’m a Kazanite, and so is Cameron Mitchell. We’re doing Roger without Roger. Marty Cohen doesn’t have a clue. There are some paying problems on this movie, but I’m standing by because my manager is producing it along with his friend Rex Carlton, who was dubious at best. At the end of the first ten days of shooting, they don’t have money for my actors. I’m going to get my money because my manager is the producer and director. That’s not right.” – Bruce Dern on “The Rebel Rousers”

“It’s just one big plastic hassle.” – Dean Stockwell as Dave in “Psych-Out”

It’s 1967 and everyone looks a little exhausted. Fascinatingly so. I’m talking about the actors in Martin B. Cohen’s The Rebel Rousers and Richard Rush’s Psych-Out, both shot in ’67 – two very different movies, but two that have a similar vibe of … oh, we have done and seen so much already. We’ve been out of the house a long time, kids. But they are all creative – they’re all searching. They are all game – some are even quite powerful, and they seem real in spite of some hokey situations. No one is on auto-pilot. They’re all in their own world, but also, in it together, acting out something that could very well be happening internally, something a little darker, a little more vulnerable, something that’s responding to the 1960s nearing its end, something responding to their careers in a strange spot, to time marching on and time waiting for no one. This seems like a lot to say – especially for a picture that seems as inconsequential as The Rebel Rousers (Psych-Out has more going for it) – but there’s something in both pictures that reverberates beyond the movies themselves. In both, everything feels a bit off. And it’s not off in the way Rebel Rousers biker Jack Nicholson’s striped pants look (which are pretty great, really) or how Psych-Out hippie Jack Nicholson’s ponytail seems pinned on (also pretty great, if odd-looking), and it’s not the loud motorcycles and it’s not the groovy acid. It’s something else.

And, so, the actors’ tiredness feels appropriate, even, at times, moving. A moving bummer. But a kind of bummer that makes both movies infinitely more interesting. Is that the point? Do these actors feel all of this? Something darker going on? As pondered in Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice: “Was it possible, that at every gathering – concert, peace rally, love-in, be-in, and freak-in, here, up north, back east, wherever – those dark crews had been busy all along, reclaiming the music, the resistance to power, the sexual desire from epic to everyday, all they could sweep up, for the ancient forces of greed and fear? ‘Gee,’ he said to himself out loud, ‘I dunno…’” I dunno. I dunno if these guys know either.

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The Rebel Rousers (or Rebel Rousers) is a biker movie not directed by Roger Corman (The Wild Angels) or Richard Rush (The Savage Seven, Hells Angels on Wheels) but by Bruce Dern’s manager, Martin B. Cohen, his only picture as a director. It doesn’t have the energy of the aforementioned movies; Cohen’s craftsmanship is not at that level. I’m not sure if he knew what he was doing, though he had the benefit of working with cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs (who would also shoot Richard Rush’s Psych-Out), and of course, his excellent cast and, chiefly, Dern whose voice and movements and vocal inflections are transfixing. He can alternate from yelling gleefully to confused to sad to unsure to cocky to absolutely lost – he makes every moment count. But it’s intriguing to watch all of the film’s actors – Dern, Cameron Mitchell, Diane Ladd, Jack Nicholson, Harry Dean Stanton – they take their roles seriously, volley off of each other, and clearly, at times, improvise (you wonder what percentage of the movie is improvisation – how much script was actually written). As interesting as it is (to me, anyway, as a time capsule of these actors’ careers, as well as some mysterious kind of melancholy), it’s a slow-moving picture for those expecting crazier biker antics. And it contains some flat-footed offensive moments with the Mexican characters living in the town. It does feature a Mexican family (led by Robert Dix – son of famed actor Richard Dix) who eventually help Paul (he is seen frantically searching for help all over town without any success) and who face off against the bikers with pitchforks –  but that doesn’t amount to much in terms of the story. Nicholson and Dern fight in a darkly lit scene (so dark I was wondering who was fighting – the striped pants helped) and Dern will find himself lost and a bit sad on the beach in a nice closing shot.

Here, the biker gang (including Earl Finn, Lou Procopio, Phil Carey and Neil Nephew) go about their wanna-be Wild One business, taking over a town (somewhat) and things get rowdy in a restaurant – they’re dancing on tables, women are taking off their shirts and shimmying in their bras, a guy plays the bongos, and they’re either scaring people or sort of charming them (there’s a moment where bad boy bikers Dern and Nicholson talk to an elderly woman who really looks like she was eating in that joint, I can’t believe she’s an actress and her little moment is kind of great –  “She’s the woman of the year, man!” says Dern as he lifts up her arm triumphantly – she seems only mildly amused and certainly not shocked by them). But their rebellion is lackluster, tired. How many times have they pulled this crap? Aren’t they getting bored with themselves?

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It seems like this is the point. They’re bored. These guys have nothing better to do than to ride in circles on the beach. The free-wheeling 60s spirit and outlaw attitude just seem like an effort here, even as being a biker is a ride-or-die way of life. Going around in circles seems to be the theme of the movie. As in, is that all there is? Had Monte Hellman directed (and he had already directed Nicholson, brilliantly, in two masterful westerns The Shooting and Ride in the Whirlwind, and also, earlier, Back Door to Hell and Flight to Fury), this movie could have been a fascinating existential rumination on … moving, on a road to nowhere (like the title of Hellman’s more recent picture). It’s nowhere near as interesting as anything Hellman would create (and certainly not as beautiful) but that rumination is there, albeit with less cinematic poetry. But, as said, Dern makes for a compelling character, particularly opposite Mitchell. He’s a guy who thinks he’s free but really isn’t. A guy who wants to be an outlaw but also wants to be good. A guy who probably secretly wants to hang it all up and settle down at some point even if he says otherwise. At the end of the picture, Diane Ladd (Dern’s wife at the time – she’s pregnant with their child, Laura) asks his lost biker, after all that has gone down: “Can we help you?” He answers: “No, it’s all right. I can make it myself. I think that’s kind of what it’s all about anyway.” I think he’s right – that is what it’s kind of all about. He thinks. He doesn’t really know for sure. Did Bruce Dern make up that line? It’s a good one.

‘Gee,’ he said to himself out loud, ‘I dunno…’”

When the movie begins, Dern, as biker leader J.J., and his biker crew (including Nicholson as Bunny, wearing those striped pants, and Stanton as a guy who wears a tricked-out suit – he looks nothing like a biker, which works well for his character in this kind of cool yet ironic attire) have ventured into the small town, ready for mischief. Dern bumps into a guy he played football with in high school in Los Angeles – the architect Paul Collier (Mitchell – who is over 15 years older than Dern, so Dern is either supposed to be in his late 40s or Mitchell in his early 30s – or both of them somewhere in between). Paul is about to have a tense reunion with his pregnant interior decorator girlfriend, Karen (Ladd), who sits nervously in a hotel room. She wears a fur coat and carries a Chanel purse. She’s neither outlaw nor hippie. Dern and Mitchell exchange pleasantries – and they really are being pretty nice to each other, even as Dern is calling Mitchell out as something of a square, albeit, gently, but Mitchell doesn’t seem to care. He’s eager to find Ladd. The two men quickly catch up on what each are doing. Dern says, vaguely, “Oh, I’m around, getting by, finding out where things are at.” He invites Paul to hang out later, and rides off, and Paul goes to the little motel Karen’s staying at. They have a lot to talk about. Chiefly, is she going to keep the baby? Are they going to get married?  It’s a strange centerpiece to the movie – this couple attempting to figure out their lives and maybe bringing a child into the world together, as a biker gang has entered the city and will, in no time, terrorize them.

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And they do terrorize them. As Paul and Karen take a drive to talk, the bikers (sans Dern) jump up on their car and start hassling the couple. Dern breaks it up in his attempts to be a peace-maker, a nice guy (again, he went to high school with this fellow, they played football), and they take the couple down to the beach. It all starts going crazy when Bunny wants Karen for a night and is not taking no for an answer – Dern’s closest pal here is being just too much of a predatory rapist scumbag. So, in both a twisted game and an attempt to stall for time (this way Paul, who has been beat up, can run and get help), a race is proposed to win Karen. This isn’t exactly a comforting scenario for Karen and you do worry about her – there’s very little titillation presented in this scenario. You also feel for Paul (Mitchell has some incredibly believable moments of desperation, he’s a wonderful actor). But there’s something so banal about how these outlaws mess with the couple – but because of that lack of excitement, it feels like how something like this would go down. Nothing cool or exploitative-sexy about it. It’s a bunch of yahoos scaring this poor woman with Dern’s J.J. feeling guilty while being something of a coward himself. We are feeling it – something Dern touched on in his autobiography. He said of the movie:

“There is some pretty goddamn good acting going on where things are flying around and people are into moment-to-moment behavior and everybody’s getting chances to do things with a beginning, a middle, and an end to each character in each scene, and nobody’s getting away with anything. There are no star trips going on. Each one of us threw ego out the window and tried to make a movie that made sense. Out of that came a sense of dignity from me and my character just trying to keep from drowning, holding it all together in front of and behind the camera. It was pretty exciting work when you consider it was total chaos.”

He’s right. But no one releasing the picture was grooving on the film’s slow moving middle-aged story about a couple arguing over a baby and possible marriage while bikers terrorize, no matter how great the acting, and the picture was shelved. It was released three years later in 1970 after Nicholson broke out as a star from his memorable turn in Easy Rider and about a few months before Five Easy Pieces (one of his greatest, most defining roleswas released. If anyone went to see Nicholson, however, they got a lot more Dern and Mitchell (and they are both terrific here), but Nicholson stands out as a goofy crazy sinister guy, clearly ad-libbing a lot of weird dialogue. You can’t take your eyes off him. Nicholson has been around a long time, but he’s incredibly creative – on screen and off. And Nicholson, according to Dern, had a lot going on, personally. This was also a tough, transitional moment for Nicholson, some major life changes had put him in a melancholy mood as he was shooting the picture. From Dern’s autobiography:

“I would walk down the beach when we were shooting at Paradise Cove. Sitting between two huge rocks, frustrated, very touchy, down, sad, and angry, was Jack. Tearful some days. Depressed most days. He was going through a divorce from his wife, Sandra, who was the mother of their daughter, Jennifer, who couldn’t have been more than a year and a half old. Jack could still rise above it all, even though he was terribly wounded. I had a love for him from that time on and would do anything to help him out. He was writing a script, The Trip, with a part that he intended to play himself … I’ll never forget that day, when I saw a wreck of a guy writing that script because of the circumstances in his own life, the emotional grips that were on him, the frailty of the human being. I fell in love with Jack, and I realized what an amazing guy he was. My heart went out to him. Then we turned the switch on ten minutes later, and he was there, take after take after take, rising above his own problems.”

Nicholson did indeed write The Trip, but he didn’t get the role he had written for himself – that went to the guy who felt for him all depressed on the set of Rebel Rousers: Bruce Dern. As discussed in Dennis McDougal’s, “Five Easy Decades: How Jack Nicholson Became the Biggest Star in Modern Times”: “Jack wrote a part for himself as Fonda’s guide through the psychedelic wilderness, but Corman awarded Bruce Dern the role instead, having lost faith in Jack’s screen charisma. Although Jack was Dern’s acting equal, other directors wouldn’t hire him, and Corman joined their ranks. He began to think of Jack less as an actor and more as a writer. Dern concurred. ‘The original script that he wrote for The Trip was just sensational.’”

Peter Fonda said even more. From McDougal: “’I don’t believe it,’ a weepy Peter Fonda told his wife, so moved was he when he first read Jack’s script. The Trip ranked with the best of Fellini, he said. ‘I don’t believe that I’m really going to have a chance; that I get to be in this movie. This is going to be the greatest film ever made in America.’”

The movie Dern and Fonda read was not the movie that was, in the end, made. What Nicholson wrote in that script changed significantly once Corman got a hold of it, excising entire scenes and storylines. But the movie became a big hit for Corman, leading to Nicholson writing Psych-Out. Nicholson completed the script in May of 1967, with the title Love is a Four Letter Word. According to McDougal, producer Dick Clark didn’t like that title and changed it to The Love Children, and then Samuel Arkoff, didn’t like that one (he thought it sounded like illegitimate children), and so it was changed to Psych-Out – an ode to Psycho, which only makes sense in terms of the re-release of Psycho (at least Clark, I’m assuming, got some great music acts on the soundtrack – among them, Strawberry Alarm Clock and The Seeds). The script was changed so much that Nicholson’s name was taken off of it. He did get the lead role, this time, however, as Stoney.

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So here we have Stoney and his rock band, Mumblin’ Jim (with friends and bandmates, Ben, played by Adam Roarke, and Elwood, played by Max Julien) living in Haight-Ashbury, just hanging, getting high, playing music, seducing women. A deaf runaway, Jenny (Susan Strasberg – who was also in The Trip), shows up in their coffee house one day – and Stoney is attracted, or at least wants to sleep with her. There’s already a lot more energy to this movie over those doleful bikers in Rebel Rousers – these guys seem to be having some kind of fun, at least in bursts of pleasure with one another (who knows how long those bursts last), and thanks to the presence of the immediately likable and wonderfully natural actors’ Roarke and Julien. And Richard Rush is a far better director, a guy who understood and discussed being anti-establishment (expressed so much better in his powerful Getting Straight starring Elliott Gould. Rush also directed the great Freebie and the Bean and the masterful The Stunt Man). He also works nicely with Laszlo Kovacs, achieving some beautifully shot moments, and fascinating documentary-style footage of the scene. But, just as in Rebel Rousers there’s an edge of … when is this all going to end? This all can’t last. Stoney and Ben and Elwood are nice to Jenny (even when Stoney tries to prove her deafness to his friends by saying, “Let’s kill her and eat her” – what a line, and with Nicholson uttering it – I can never forget that line) and they hide her from the cops who’ve come in looking for her. She’s ditched home to find her brother Steve (we will learn he is Bruce Dern, crazy-eyed and poignant here  – and he is now a kind of mysterious character known as “The Preacher”).

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So, she shacks up at the communal crash pad where Stoney sleeps (and eventually becomes frustrated by their way of living – no one does the dishes) and follows along with some of these guys’ adventures, observing weirdos, watching mock funerals (where the The Seeds appear and play) and meeting philosophical dudes (chiefly, Dean Stockwell, as Dave) along the way. Henry Jaglom plays an artist who completely freaks out on drugs and tries to cut his hand off with a power saw. He hallucinates Stoney and friends as walking corpses. Jenny asks, somewhat sensibly at that moment (he did try to cut his hand off, after all, but one never knows how a trip will go), “Why does he take that stuff?” Stoney answers: “Don’t judge people, Jenny.” And then another guy starts lecturing her about Nietzsche – she walks off. Her brother is “The Preacher.” She doesn’t need any more of this shit.

Stockwell is Dave (I love how simple that name is), the ex-Mumblin’ Jim band member who dropped out because they were too focused on making it. He doesn’t dig that kind of ambition – that kind of ambition that Stoney has – and Stoney is a rather single-minded guy, but it’s hard to blame him seeing as how some of this scene may end up. Cynically, it’s going to probably get bought up or darker forces will enter the fold, so why not get famous? Maybe he can call the shots then? Maybe. He may sleep around and get high, but he’s got some priorities and organization and, deep down, you sense this guy doesn’t want to crash in a dirty house much longer.

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Everyone seems on the cusp of moving on to something else – not necessarily all for the better. Stoney will maybe become famous, or at least, as said, he’ll be striving for it, make a living from music, and Dave just seems like he’s going to … well, he’s going to, by the end, die, actually. His dying words are quite touching: “Reality is a deadly place. I hope this trip is a good one.” And so Dave, though his heart is in the right place, he’s not going to sell out, he’s going to live life on his own terms. It’s interesting to watch Stockwell – he’s waxing philosophical about everything, and he’s critical, but he seems like walking death throughout the movie because it’s going to be hard to really live like that. Stockwell plays this not like a naïve youngster, but as a guy who has been around the block, a guy who is hanging on to his philosophy before he’s killed off. When Stoney asks Dave to play with their band again, he turns them down. “Truth” is brought up:

Stoney: We need you to play with us.

Dave: You still playin’ games, Stoney?

Stoney: Since when is music a game. Playin’ makes me feel good.

Dave: So does a paycheck.

toney: Oh, yeah. The old bad thing. The root of all evil, right?

Dave: No. Not bad or good. There’s only the truth.

Stoney: The truth. Old black and whitey.

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When Nicholson wrote the script, he was experiencing his own kind of journey, with LSD, with life, with acting, with his creativity, with “New Hollywood” (he would go to direct his impressive directorial debut, Drive, He Said, released in 1971 – read J. Hoberman’s excellent piece about that and BBS productions formed by Bob Rafelson, Bert Schneider and Stephen Blaune, from Criterion) and it would have been interesting to see his original work. From McDougal’s book:

“Jack became a Reich devotee in the late sixties for the same reasons he dabbled in Krishnamurti and LSD: to get to the core of his creativity. In conversations with Strasberg during the filming of ‘Psych-Out,’ Jack admitted that his ‘volatile field of energy’ made him hard to live with. He called himself ‘an existential romantic’ pursuing life, liberty, and orgasmic release … As a result of Reich, ‘I don’t falsify sensuality,’ Jack declared. But neither was he just another horn-dog hedonist. Jack’s evolving beliefs still left plenty of room for monogamous intimacy. ‘You can feel the difference when you make love and there’s love there, and when you make love and there’s not love there,’ he said. ‘I’m not a Victorian, but a fact’s a fact.’”

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A fact’s a fact. Old black and whitey… But you get the sense that there was a vibe on set that was seeping into the production. These actors, all of them great actors, have worked so much already, they’re neither young nor old, they are indeed, New Hollywood, and they’ve seen and experienced so much that you can feel the sad cynicism of Easy Rider approaching – and this spirit will seep into even more creative, thoughtful work in the 1970s. Are these guys gonna be free? You see Peter Fonda as Captain America thinking – his ambivalence – while starring in and creating one of the iconic films of the late 60s, and one that is leading us right into the 70s. The shooting of Psych-Out expressed a kind of change-over as well. According to McDougal, there were those in the area who weren’t cool with the production, those that interrupted all of this free and easy peace and love, and director Richard Rush had to turn to a real-life Rebel Rouser for help:

“During filming, Rush again called on Sonny Barger, but this time not for his technical assistance. After panhandlers pulled knives on the cast and crew, Rush hired the Angels to patrol the shoot. The Summer of Love had ended by the time Rush’s cameras rolled in October 1967, and Clark observed that a ‘tougher element’ had taken over the Haight. By the time ‘Psych-Out’ was released in March 1968, peace, love, and understanding had given way to paranoia, lust, and heroin. In the pages of Variety, Clark predicted that hippies would soon fade across America, not just in San Francisco.”

What a bummer. But what an interesting bummer. Because these actors and filmmakers are about to move on to some incredible art and careers, some of the most defining work of the 1970s. But after watching these movies, I’m again thinking of Diane Ladd in Rebel Rousers asking Bruce Dern: “Can we help you?”

“No, it’s all right. I can make it myself. I think that’s kind of what it’s all about anyway.” Kind of.  Because you, everyone, always needs a little help.

Originally published at the New Beverly


One Magical Maggie May Moment

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There's a moment in Heath Ledger's far too short, sometimes brilliant film career that makes me so filled with wistful emotion, that no matter how many times I watch it, I'm still taken aback by its deceptively simple power. It's his final scene in Catherine Hardwicke's great Lords of Dogtown, the under-discussed skater picture featuring one of Ledger's most poignant performances.

As Skip Engblom, the crusty, aging uncle/father figure to the kids of Team Zephyr, young Ledger played beyond his years with quirky effortlessness. As in most of his performances, Ledger imbued what could have been a one-note aging stoner dude with sympathy and soul, dignifying Skip with a disarming, surprisingly heart-wrenching end note: Sanding a surfboard in the back of what was once his kingdom, in what could have been an easy, here's-where-he's-at-now scene. Instead, Ledger fills us with a compelling mixture of sadness and a glimmer of hope that Skip will at least survive this life OK. After his boss orders him to finish a surfboard for some kid, the past lord dutifully, but bitterly, complies. Glumly sitting down, Skip slowly perks up to the lovely opening of Rod Stewart's "Maggie May." Pounding to that infectious double drum beat preceding Stewart's passionate "Wake up, Maggie, I think I got something to say to you," Skip, in a flash of understated joy and release, turns up the radio and sings along.

Sublime Ledger is so in the moment and so naturally bittersweet that in mere seconds, he makes one remember just how much those little things in life can affect you -- those times or sensations that either make you crash hard or for one wonderful, ephemeral moment, lift you higher. And then you sit down. Take a drink. And you're back in your reality. 


Phil Karlson’s Gunman's Walk

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A brief look at Phil Karlson's Gunman's Walk...

“Look, times don’t change in this country where you breed a man soft… without any spirit in him. A man’s like a horse. If you don’t buck the first time you put a saddle on him, he ain’t worth having, you know that!”— Lee Hackett (Van Heflin)

In Phil Karlson’s Gunman ‘s Walk – you wonder how hard old rancher Lee Hackett (Van Heflin) handled his sons. Sure, he probably belted them – he even makes causal reference of it to one of the boys when they return home after a journey on their horses. But anything to do with beatings are mostly said with a laugh. That’s just how things were done back then and the boys are tough and grown up now and why would they question any such thing? Why would they question anything their father espouses? Their father knows all. All.

Physical punishment for kids is awful -- but that's not what is entirely wrong in this family dynamic -- or so far we know. What else? What else did Lee instill or pummel into these boys that made them come out the way they did? (There’s no mother around – we assume Lee is a widower). And why did they come out so differently? 

One, the younger son, Davy (James Darren), is a sensitive sort – in later years (this liberal-minded western came out in 1958 – written by written by Ric Hardman, screenplay by Frank S. Nugent) Davy might be considered a proto-hippie – a peacenik. He doesn’t care much for competition, he’s calm and thoughtful, and he’s not woefully insulted if he’s not the best shot with a gun. He, in fact, doesn’t even like wearing his gun – he sees no use for it save for shooting a horse that’s sick or maybe ridding a threatening rattle snake. So why does he have to wear his holster and gun around town? People think it’s outmoded and, frankly, silly. They stare, he says. His disappointed dad, Lee (both sons call their father “Lee” and not dad), says let ‘em stare. That’s how the Hackett’s built this town, that’s how they kept reign, that’s how it was and how it should stay. Intimidating. To Lee, guns are good, goddammit. You gotta stride around with that gun – it gives you that extra … potency. 

Lee – this is a man who is fearful of getting older, fearful of limpness. Guns are frequently discussed as such (and perhaps too easily at times), but in Gunman’s Walk, yes indeed, the gun really does seem to represent the phallus. In Lee’s eyes – you’re not going to walk the same without one.

With that, Davy weakly shoots some bottles his dad sets up to see how rusty his son has gotten, and we wonder if the son is missing on purpose – if he’s just so sick of this gun business. Is Lee embarrassed of him (is his son gay?). I don’t think Lee suspects this of Davy, but there’s an insinuation that he’s not a real man, which the movie makes sure we never think. Davy, in fact, is more his own person. And he’s a loving young man – he’s not going to poison his dad with too much resentment – nor his older brother. But after we meet that older brother, we wonder how he came out so sweet.

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That older brother, Ed (a fantastic Tab Hunter) is the ace shot. He
likes wearing his gun. He practices his moves in the mirror – something Davy makes gentle fun of him over. Ed seems to enjoy scaring people, and really, he wants to scare his dad. He wants to beat his dad – beat him in every game that father has thrown at him. He’s tall and blonde and handsome and he makes passes at girls (too roughly) and he never seems happy. Never. Even when he’s singing in a saloon, drunk: “So many nights for havin' fun/ So many fights I haven't won/ There's not enough notches on my gun/ I'm a runaway/I'm a runaway…” he seems out of control, not joyful. Vaguely sociopathic. But there’s something sad inside this “bad seed” – something his dad planted. He could snap at any minute. He does. Quite a few times. He's mad at the world but he’s mostly mad at his father.

When Ed rides up to the ranch with his brother, he lets another man brush down his horse. Lee is angry and says:

“Listen son, you let a man do things for you, things you should be doing yourself, and sooner or later he’s gonna get the idea that he’s a better man than you are. Now you remember that.”

A better man. No one should be or even think so. Well, except Lee. Lee is better than everyone, including his sons. Ed, as we see from the get go, is deeply resentful of this. Even hateful. When his dad is setting up a can to shoot – Ed shoots it right out of Lee’s hand, and when Lee’s back is turned. He could have killed his father. Lee is furious. And then … he lets it go. He just lets it go. He laughs a big, somewhat charming, somewhat overcompensating laugh that we’ll see a lot in this movie. Ah, boys will be boys.

In a later, beautifully directed scene, we see Lee at a saloon with his buddies, whooping it up, laughing his amiable/slightly sinister Van Heflin laugh, and Ed sits grim faced, staring at his father’s reflection in the saloon mirror. He then shoots that reflection. It’s a dramatic gesture and should be a warning to Lee – but Lee takes it in stride. Or does he? That reflection is what Ed will later call the “shadow” – he is a shadow compared to his father – and in a way, he is shooting himself too (after all, Lee likes to look in mirrors – there’s another doleful moment in a mirror in the picture). Ed hates Lee but he must love him too. Lee loves Ed – he “loves” him so much that he hires someone to lie when Lee “accidentally” shoves a half-Native American cowboy (Bert Convy) off a cliff on a cattle drive. Ed is after a beautiful white mare and that cowboy got in the way – something (the beautiful white mare stands stark and haunting in this movie— behold a pale horse – Ed is chasing death).

Things just build and build after this. Davy falls in love with Cecily "Clee" Chouard (Kathryn Grant), a half-French, half-Sioux whom both his racist brother and father refer contemptuously to as a “half-breed.” She’s the sister of the dead cowboy and Davy starts siding with the family more than his own… This is unacceptable to Lee. Not a surprise.

And Ed is just going crazier –the more he runs rampant in town, acts his own unhinged way, the angrier at his father he becomes. And himself. This is a young man who hates himself. That he’s a shadow. In the end the shadow must be killed – by the father – it’s a shocking and disarmingly moving ending and makes Gunman’s Walk something of a masterpiece. 

Karlson, who directed some of the great, tough-as-nails noirs (99 River Street, Kansas City Confidential and The Phenix City Story) wonders why in hell do these people have to be so violent. Does it solve anything? This is a director questioning authority; looking at how we blindly believe in institutions – one of them being “manhood,” domination. And he gives Heflin, Darren and Hunter plenty to explore here – these are fascinating character studies, both deeply human and symbolic. Gunman_s_Walk-276247508-large
Heflin’s Lee – god knows what he did to his sons and god knows why he is so obsessed with Ed. What is going on there? There’s an inverse to Martin Ritt's Hud here – Heflin’s character puts up with so much with Ed, irritated by his gentler son, while Melvyn Douglas’ righteousness clashes with his bad boy son (whom Douglas does not love – which messes up his son – he’s got to account for that). You get the feeling that Heflin’s Lee would get along well with Hud the cynicism and corruption of Paul Newnan’s Hud. But would Hud hate him too? Probably. 

But to Heflin and Hunter’s immense credit and their brilliant performances (this is one of Hunter’s greatest roles) – we, the audience, don’t hate them. We can’t. We get that they are damaged men – and that there is something about the world, something about what is expected of masculinity, that can twist these two men and turn them crazy. The resulting movie is heartbreaking – Lee is rendered powerless – and that makes him, to the viewer, in some ways, more powerful. More open. More of a human being. And some powerful men were affected by this. 

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One of those powerful men was the fearsome (and hated by many) Columbia studio head, Harry Cohn. According to Karlson (in an interview with Todd McCarthy and Richard Thompson), Cohn was moved beyond his own comfortable measure. Said Karlson:

“There was no tougher man in the whole world, and I had the pleasure of seeing this man sit in a projection room, with Freddie Kohlmar and myself, crying at Gunman's Walk. At the end of that picture, he was literally crying. Harry Cohn crying! Freddie Kohlmar got up; he was so embarrassed he walked out… Then I started to get out and he stopped me, Harry Cohn, and he said, ‘Wait a minute.’ He now bawled out the projectionist for turning the lights on, because nobody turns any lights on unless he gives the order, presses the button. He was so moved by that picture because he had two sons and this was a story about a father and two sons. He identified completely with that motion picture and he said to me, ‘You're going to be the biggest director in this business and I'm going to make sure you are.’” 

“Wouldn't you know, that's the last picture he was ever associated with. 

“He went to Phoenix, Arizona, and died.”


New Blood: The Color of Money

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“Life is on the wire; the rest is just waiting.” – Karl Walenda

“On the snap Vincent!”

This is uttered to pool player and obnoxious kid, Vincent Lauria, via his manager girlfriend, Carmen -- almost like a boxing trainer -- in a smoky bar on a regular night of nothing particularly special in the 1980s. Phil Collins' “One More Night” plays on the soundtrack (and presumably jukebox) because that’s what would be playing in a place like this. And there goes Vincent breaking those balls. He breaks them like a “sledgehammer” as the older man observing him from the bar says with a mixture of surprise and discovery. He says this even before really seeing the kid. The older guy is talking to his lady friend bar owner, discussing the liquor he now sells, getting kind of cozy and romantic with her about who made her an omelet and who is going home with her when she gets off (he is going home with her). He’s a strikingly handsome wizened fella, dressed old-school but cool in a beautiful grey suit, sitting in the bar paying half attention to the pool game going on behind him and then…he hears this kid. And then he sees this kid. This weird kid who showboats and hoots and does some kind of wanna-be samurai sword move with this pool cue. And then the weird kid plays a video game during his break from the game. Total ADD and immaturity. What?

But. This kid. He’s got something special and the older guy knows it right away. And, then we hear it again: “Come on! On the snap Vincent!” And then it’s all over after that for the older guy. It’s like falling in love, or finding that thing that will give you a life force, or finding your next victim. 

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This is all happening at the very beginning of Martin Scorsese’s under-discussed
The Color of Money --  the camera reacts to Vincent’s pool skills and that older man reacts and we react -- our senses are heightened, we’re perked up, curious, even on edge a little, and we feel alive. All from faces and pool balls and that cracking sound. The camera does a zoom to that older man at the bar, we see him in beautiful close-up, more than curious, a little spellbound, but without losing his cool, that man just happening to be Fast Eddie Felson (Paul Newman), he of the classic The Hustler (directed by Robert Rossen, based on the novel by Walter Tevis, as is The Color of Money, adapted by Richard Price). Former pool hustler Fast Eddie is going to find himself back in the game via this kid, Vince (Tom Cruise) and his intelligent girlfriend, Carmen (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), and the movie will become less about the discovery and maturation of greenhorn Vince (though it certainly goes there) and more about the simultaneous soul-stirring feelings this kid inspires in his mentor and the vampiric victory that mentor can suck out of him. The victory being – he is simply back to doing what he loves. 

This film has been unfavorably compared, by some critics, to a cheesy perfunctory training film of the 1980s -- as if Martin Scorsese, needing money and working as a director for hire, had directed The Karate Kid (nothing against The Karate Kid), but it’s so much more interior than that, so much less easily heartfelt (in a good way), so much stranger and real-life and haunting.

The nostalgia of Fast Eddie is cagier, there really is no nostalgia to it, and Newman, brilliantly, never plays his character that way. He’s neither a sleaze nor a perfect father figure nor a “let’s all be in awe of this guy” type. He’s like a lot of dads or mentors or lovers – he’s fucked up and selfish but smart and world-weary and maybe was the best at one time and you should listen to him when he’s being wise about things but you also really, really, sometimes, should be wary of this man too. What’s his game anyway?

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Fast Eddie asks Vince and Carmen out for dinner and over not too-long of a time, he starts to get to know both of them. Carmen is a tough customer, she drove the getaway car when her boyfriend robbed Vince’s parent’s house (a real meet cute at the police station), but she’s smart and she actually listens and takes in advice. Vince works in a big anonymous store wearing a tee-shirt that says VINCE on it (he wears it again while playing pool, a nice touch). What does this kid want to do with his life? And what does Carmen want out of it? Fast Eddie had already sized her up the first night in the bar as he says:

“Maybe I'm hustling you, maybe I'm not. You don't know, but you should know. If you know that, you know when to say no.” She says, “What should I say?” His answer: “You should say no. Why? Because it's too much money and I'm an unknown. He should be the unknown. That would be nice. That would be beautiful. You could play around with that. You could control that.”

You could control that. Fast Eddie introduces the pair to a bigger life of pool hustling, which Vince has some issues with (throwing games?!) but soon these three are on their way to a championship in Atlantic city, albeit with a major bump in the road -- a humiliated Fast Eddie is scammed by Amos (Forest Whitaker -- marvelous) and storms out on them. Mentor no more. Fast Eddie is going to start playing himself -- fuck this kid -- even if he’s grown fond of him. 

The movie is so dead and so alive. Almost dead, in the right way, when these characters are out there on the streets, driving in cars, talking in cafes, and it’s supposed to be – life outside the pool hall is just there and the camera (the film was shot by ace Michael Ballhaus -- lot of movement and quick zooms and whip cams – so beautiful and thrilling) reflects it in those moments. Static. But when we go into the pool halls, the choreography works like a musical. Tom Cruise even has a musical number -- set to Warren Zevon’s “Werewolves of London" -- and it’s just so ridiculous and wonderfully embarrassing and like the werewolf’s hair: perfect. Cruise is incredibly human and very strange in the way a kid like this might be – he’s cocky and needy and when he tries hard to be cool, it comes off just… bizarre. Damaged.

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But, Newman. Newman is cool personified -- the coolest motherfucker in the room, in fact. But he’s getting older and he needs his mojo back. Seeing sticks all the time, it’s easy to think of (sorry to be less delicate about it) one in need of getting it up. Tom Cruise is like Viagra for this guy. But it also feels like two gunfighters, two samurais, the young gun and the master facing off, swords for pool cues (and again, Vince and all of his showboating sword-twirling with the stick). And, so, when the film ends and these two are about to duel -- we don’t know what will happen. And that is the best way to end this movie, I don’t care what any critic says. 

When the picture freeze frames on Fast Eddie and he says, “Hey. I’m back!” this could be so corny but … it’s so not.

He is back, not because we’re simply cheering on his glory, but because he’s drunk on the blood. That blood that Vincent provided for him. Eddie was right when he sized up Vincent in the beginning and called him a “character.” Vincent initially takes this as a compliment but Eddie says, “That's not what I said, kid. I said you are a natural character; you're an incredible flake. But that's a gift. Guys spend half their lives inventing that. You walk into a pool room with that go-go-go, the guys'll be killing each other, trying to get to you. You got that... But I'll tell you something, kiddo. You couldn't find Big Time if you had a road map."

Fast Eddie needed that character and he needed that flake to get to where he is by the end of the picture. He’s been one hell of a mentor, and he’s wise and wonderful in many ways, yes, but he also needed to fuel himself. It’s life-affirming sure, but it’s also a little life-sucking and selfish. It's not an inspiring story about two guys learning from each other -- even if they do learn. It's so much more interesting and layered than all that.

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In an interview with Richard Schickel, Scorsese put it: “I wanted it to be a story of an older person who corrupts a young person, like a serpent in the garden of innocence.”

We're mesmerized by this serpent and even if we feel bad for the natural character and flake, we're rooting for the serpent.  Aren't we?



Mikey & Nicky & May

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Mikey
: You call me “The Echo,” and you tell everybody that I have to say everything twice because I got a tunnel in my head. The second time is the echo.

Nicky: Listen, Mikey, everybody says everything. I mean, what’s the difference? I was kidding. Don’t you ever kid?

Mikey: You make me out a joke to Resnick. Just like you made me out a joke to that girl.

Nicky: Mikey, you’re wrong.

Mikey: And I’d do anything for you. Anything. And unless you’re sick or in trouble, you don’t even know I’m alive.

 

At the beginning of Elaine May’s third, brilliant picture, Mikey and Nicky, John Cassavetes’ Nicky is holed up in a seedy motel room in Philadelphia, terrified and desperate. He’s in the midst of a nervous breakdown and looks like he’s been up for days with his messy, bed-head hair, handsome, haggard face and wrinkled white dress shirt sticking to his thin frame in an angst-filled, ulcer-ridden sweat. He’s stooped on a dingy bed and staring nervously rat-eyed at the dirty, chain-locked door, hoping no one busts through. He’s got a gun. Of course, he’s got a gun. This place is the kind of fleabag hovel where people shoot through filthy locked doors or bribe front desk clerks who’ll look the other way when an offender blasts through those grungy openings and commits whatever bit of unpleasantness that happens on the other side.

The joint is haunted with the lives of those who hide in the rooms, sitting on bed-bugged blankets full of dope and desperate dreams. Nicky isn’t dreaming, his life is a wide-awake-nightmare. But he does have hope – he hopes to stay alive.

He’s got a good reason to be scared – he’s heard there’s a contract out on him. He calls the buddy he’s known since childhood, Mikey (Peter Falk), and begs for help. Nicky knows Mikey’s going to come up, even if Nicky throws down a towel and nearly knocks Mikey with a bottle. You feel for him. Mickey reassures him, spending the entire movie with his pal. Mikey’s an old friend and Nicky can trust him.

Oh… hold on. Can he? Is he on the level? When you eventually learn that Mikey is not – and you don’t catch this right away – but once you realize that the hitman (played by Ned Beatty) on Nicky’s trail is being aided along by Mikey, you start to piece together that this friend isn’t the one Nicky should have called. You’re on Nicky’s side. You think. But keep watching. No, you’re on both of their sides because what kind of hell are these men trapped within? What kind of life is this? Is Mikey really going to deceive Nicky? Is Nicky maybe a sociopath? Well, nothing is easy in this movie, and certainly nothing as easy as being on one person’s side.

As the night wears on and these two talk, fight, hit each other and reveal more and more about themselves and, to May and her actors’ immense credit, your emotions shift all over the place. Whatever alliances you had, whatever charm you’ve felt from these two guys, all that has been dragged around and sullied, dirtied up like that door in Nicky’s dumpy motel room.

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And May shoots it that way, never allowing a glamorous moment to enter the frame (even with gorgeous, through stripped-down cinematography by Bernie Abramson, Lucien Ballard and Victor J. Kemper), even with these two troubled, charismatic men who have their own kind of coarse glamour – you never forget they are often just real crumbs. She throws you in with these characters; you laugh, you’re nervous, you’re even scared about what on earth will happen next, and thus, crafts a film that’s really not one to fit any kind of genre. I guess it’s a dark buddy comedy? Whatever. It doesn’t need to fit a genre – it’s an Elaine May picture.

It’s tactile. Even the betrayal (you feel this in all of May’s pictures – relationships are fraught with them) feels like you can touch it, and you sense the long night go on and on. You can feel the sweat on their faces. You can practically smell the bars they’re drinking in. And yet, you don’t want to get out of this movie, you don’t want to unlock the door and make a run for it. You like (if that is the right word for it) being stuck with these two small-timers, you’re fascinated and drawn to them, and you wonder where this is all going to end … who is going to make it through the night?

Being stuck with these guys – that is the genius of writer-director May, and her actors Cassavetes and Falk. In one night, in the ghostly urban environ of Philadelphia (a decidedly less romantic place than New York City or Chicago or Los Angeles, or at least May shoots it that way – and it looks gloriously grungy), we tag along with two guys who talk in junky beat-up bars and on city buses or in the streets and we are enlivened, anxious, depressed, disturbed and empathetic. By trusting the chemistry and brilliant interplay between Cassavetes and Falk, May not only shows her subjects as flawed, violent, vulnerable, selfish, guilt-ridden and manipulative men carrying around decades of resentment (as many friends do) but men who are always on the precipice of violence – emotional or literal – and violence ready to do them or someone else in. You feel for them at times, but you also feel jangly and uncomfortable watching them – you are waiting for a shoe or two or three to drop. Maybe on Falk’s head.

There’s nothing noble about these guys, just real. When they stop off at Nicky’s mistress’ apartment, Nicky spouts some hollow “I love you” line so he can be intimate with her (though it doesn’t seem very intimate) on the floor, while Mikey’s hunched over in her depressing kitchen, waiting for them to finish, and for his turn. When Mikey’s rebuffed, he smacks her. It’s a startling, sad moment – May is not going to give these guys and their toxic behavior too many breaks here. Soon after, Mikey accuses Nicky of setting the scene up to embarrass him; to hurt his male ego. Nicky says something that claims she’s a little crazy and that she needs to be coddled with sweet talk before the act… Nicky says a lot of stuff. It’s all over the place and scary and sad and you’re right there on the street with them. And it’s superbly staged.

Headerphoto1763211What the director and actors are doing here – it’s what people call a “high wire act,” and the artists walk it bravely. And it is, at times, astonishing. Too bad many in 1976 didn’t think much of this movie, as far as I know, or even saw it. It came and went in theaters – not given a chance even to be seen enough by audiences – I have to think many audience members who actually saw the movie could have loved it. The picture is absolutely masterful – a movie that now stands as perhaps one of the most underrated works of the 1970s. (I was thrilled to see Criterion had released a fine edition of the film this year).

This was, I believe, considered a darker turn for May (who started out in the theater and then co-created her pioneering comedy act with Mike Nichols), and who, prior to this, had directed the brilliant comedies A New Leaf, starring Walter Matthau (which she wrote), and The Heartbreak Kid (screenplay by Neil Simon). Though it’s not like those two films were light comedies. Not in the least. She cast herself as the romantic lead ready to be knocked off by Matthau in A New Leaf, and then, in The Heartbreak Kid, she cast her own daughter (Jeannie Berlin) ready to be cut out by her selfish husband (played by Charles Grodin), after one glimpse of Cybill Shepherd on the beach during their doomed Miami Beach honeymoon.

The darkness of those two films (mixed with the bittersweet – your heart breaks for Berlin and the egg salad sandwich on her face, and for the cold break-up she must endure; you fall in love with May’s heiress/ impassioned botany professor), and Mikey and Nicky is distinctly Elaine May (even with Simon writing The Heartbreak Kid, adapted from the Bruce Jay Friedman story). May looks at this crazy world, these relationships we find ourselves in (or create), our betrayals, and the institutions we march through with a jaundiced yet utterly human eye. And it’s funny. But painful. Lovable and utterly horrible. The ending of The Heartbreak Kid is one of the most depressing endings of any “romantic comedy” I’ve ever seen. Like Mikey and Nicky, I am not even sure who I feel sorry for – Grodin’s selfishness and now likely realization of the life he’s going to lead? The first time I saw the end I was just stunned and thought – god, what has this delusional man done? And what a dreadful family. What a pitiful, lost man. And then the movie closes with Grodin quietly humming The Carpenters’ “Close to You” … is he thinking of his time in the car with his ex-wife, Berlin, happily singing the same song together?

ImagesMay always nails these kind of details with such power and layered meaning. In A New Leaf, there are many moments to discuss, but here’s one I find comic genius: May holding her teacup – that extended moment with the teacup. And the carpet.

When she first meets Matthau who has set his predatory eyes on her as a mousy thing, an easy target – May, sitting at that fancy get-together with that quivering teacup and spilling liquid on that woman’s stupid carpet (you know the scene if you’ve seen the picture), is one, among many moments in which May dissects a detail, whether small, like crumbs rolling off of her dress, or her arm hole/head hole (or large details, like Matthau’s Henry losing all of his money) and, in that, shows us how relationships are messy – quite literally with the tea and the crumbs dribbling all over us. And, maybe, just maybe, Matthau secretly likes that about her (unlike Grodin who is annoyed by everything Berlin does). But we don’t know. It should be easier to know such things but people are prickly and cranky and mean. (I certainly do love that about her in A New Leaf, crumbs and all, but I’m watching a movie).

At the end of the teacup moment, Matthau defends May’s Henrietta about the tea, and it means something to her, even if he’s play-acting (maybe secretly he’s not?). And so, with this, we don’t even know when people actually care, even as we cheer when he tells off at that snooty woman for berating May’s tea sipping and slipping: “Madam, I have seen many examples of perversion in my time but your erotic obsession with your carpet is probably the most grotesque and certainly the most boring I have ever encountered.” Maybe he’s truly sticking up for Henrietta, maybe he just enjoys hollering at the snooty hostess.

In Mikey and Nicky – the sequence that begins with the watch – you see the apologies, the pleas of it’s only a joke, and then the violence erupting. Because people are either full of shit or sincere – we can’t always tell – and that is maddening. In all of her work, May ponders this quandary between men and women and men and men – it doesn’t matter if it’s romantic or platonic – that fractured humanity is all there. And, sometimes, all we can do is nervously laugh.

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Mikey and Nicky
 carries a notorious production history that’s been discussed, sometimes more than the movie itself (and, sadly, used against May). In short, May went over budget, reportedly shot more film than Gone with the Wind and, at one point, was said to have hidden reels somewhere in Connecticut. Before that, May also dealt with studio difficulties with A New LeafA New Leaf was even darker and more extended in its original cut, supposedly sheared at the behest of Robert Evans at Paramount, which upset May enough to sue (unsuccessfully) and attempt to remove her name from the film. Either considered too long or too bleak or both, it was cut (and that footage has never been found) leaving a happier ending, however happy you take the conclusion of the picture (Henry almost really does kill her – the last minute change of heart, based on a fern isn’t the strongest indication he’s forever a new man). It’s a testament to May’s genius that the film could work either way.

After Mikey and Nicky, she didn’t direct another film until her vastly underrated, notoriously maligned, but hilarious and smart, at times brilliant Ishtar (starring Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman, written by May) came out in 1987. To discuss Ishtar (also about the relationship of two men) requires a separate essay (here’s a great one from the New Beverly by Garret Mathany), but I will say – I am glad this movie found a cult and is finally not just loved and respected by more viewers and critics than before, but now actually, seen. And this line, uttered by Beatty to a suicidal Hoffman: “Hey, it takes a lot of nerve to have nothing at your age. Don’t you understand that? Yeah, most guys would be ashamed, but you’ve got the guts to just say, ‘The hell with it.’ You say that you’d rather have nothing than settle for less. Understand?” It always makes me laugh and moves my heart, simultaneously.

As Charles Grodin said later about the film (to the Wall Street Journal):

Why should the public be concerned what the budget of a movie is? Coca-Cola financed the movie. It’s not as if Coca-Cola was going to give that money to the people of America rather than spend it. People are very reflexive. You can just say a name and people will laugh or chuckle or snicker or whatever they do. But if all the people who were snickering had seen ‘Ishtar,’ it would’ve been a big hit.”

Indeed. It sure would have.

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The absence of May as a director is something much discussed – and much missed (though she is a successful, Oscar-nominated screenwriter and a still working actress – she recently has been nominated for a Tony for her performance in Kenneth Lonergan’s The Waverly Gallery, and in 2016 she directed for television a tribute to Mike Nichols, “American Masters: Mike Nichols”). But the yearning one feels to have some more films directed by Elaine May, brings up questions – and questions relating to sexism in the film industry. Is May not allowed to be exacting or idiosyncratic or whatever she has been called? Male filmmakers are certainly entitled to be just that. Was she punished for Ishtar? A movie that suffered not only bad box office but undeserved, absolutely outsized ridicule (which still baffles me) – that is going to hurt a director. But she should be allowed a failure (in terms of box office) – especially one as actually great as Ishtar.

And she should be judged on the quality, originality, and brilliance of her four directed pictures (which she is, by the plenty of critics and other filmmakers who revere her). It’s a hard business, but from what I’ve read and heard, May does not suffer fools. She’s tough. She’s respected and loved. And four films this excellent – that’s impressive (I can think of filmmakers with much longer resumes and bigger hits who don’t hold a candle to May. Many of us can).

So that tough world of Mikey and Nicky – I was told by an actor/director recently who worked with her, praising her – that was not altogether foreign to her. And that she was damn tough herself. I don’t know if Richard Burton was terrified of her (That he’d fall in love? That she’d outwit him?) when I read this quote from him, it’s stuck with me: “Elaine was too formidable, one of the most intelligent, beautiful, and witty women I had ever met. I hoped I would never see her again.”

God, we always want to see Elaine May again. In anything. In Woody Allen’s Small Time Crooks (she is the best thing about the film), in later interviews with Mike Nichols, in an AFI tribute to Warren Beatty where she gives a perfectly timed, hilarious and loving speech to Beatty. On the stage.

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Back to the film I’m discussing – Mikey and Nicky ends as you might expect it to and yet, it feels totally surprising – this rush of emotion you feel as Nicky bangs on Mikey’s much nicer door – nicer than the one in his crappy motel room. He’s yelling in misery: “Mikey, you son of a bitch! You bastard! You bastard! Mikey!” His life is nearly over and damn, you really feel it. You believe it. You believe every second of this movie.

A line uttered earlier by Mikey is now, not so much funny as more awfully prophetic, circling back to desperate Nicky screaming at his door: “It’s very hard to talk to a dead person. I have nothing in common.” Maybe Mikey’s telling himself that at this anguished moment. Maybe not.

May isn’t going to end this movie easy. While grooving on the very human rhythms of Cassavetes and Falk, May shows their explosions of violence, and sometimes allows it to play as darkly humorous, at least for a moment, until you’re taken aback and saddened by the needlessness of it all. It’s painful and poignant and challenging and funny and finally, heartbreaking. It’s one of Elaine May’s greatest movies. But, then, to me, she doesn’t have a bad one.

From my piece at the New Beverly


You’re on Your Own: Blood Simple

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is a lonely movie. The movie sweats, cries and bleeds loneliness. The road the two lovers, Ray (John Getz) and Abby (Frances McDormand) drive down at night, opening the film, is lonely. Never mind that they are together and about to consummate their union in a hotel room – it’s a lonely road – as remote as Hank Williams’ “Lost Highway,” as friendless as Tom Neal hitching a ride in Edgar G. Ulmer’s down and dirty Detour. And the hotel doesn’t feel so uniting either – lonely cars rushing past, casting shadows on the wood-paneled walls and dingy white sheets. Is it romantic? Not really. The bar that the cuckolded, perpetually fuming Marty, Abby’s husband (Dan Hedaya), owns and runs is lonely – he seems to live in the back of that place, and only at night, feet up on the tables in the neon-bathed blackness, sweating and stressing, talking to a sleazo PI with contempt. When he attempts, miserably, to woo a pretty patron at the bar, she amusingly tells him to get lost (“Now that I’ve communicated, why don’t you leave?”). No one wants this man. And he knows it. It’s a lonely old world – and we even begin to feel sorry for him, even though we really shouldn’t (he’s going to ask the PI to off his cheating wife and her lover, a bartender he employs).

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And then there’s the constant Four Tops song that nearly bursts out of the bar juke-box in bracing moments – “It’s the Same Old Song”— something that could work to ironic effect (and perhaps does to some viewers) but a tune that serenades the movie with its abandoned refrain: “Now, it's the same old song, but with a different meaning since you been gone…” That could be Marty’s song, or any of the characters, really, as their fates feel like the repetitions of the tune via the repetition of their mistakes, mistakes that make them even lonelier. The same but different. It’s no surprise that M. Emmet Walsh’s Private Detective Loren Visser opens the film with this voice-over, saying of the film’s setting, the lone star state of Texas: “Down here, you’re on your own.”

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Not that the movie takes the character’s loneliness and murderous predicaments with solemn seriousness – it certainly doesn’t – but it doesn’t mock them or the noir genre either. Lifting our spirits (honestly, the movie’s sheer ingenuity and voice is spirit-lifting, if that is the right way to put it), there is something morbidly funny about how awful this all becomes, in part, because there is something morbidly funny about how many noir twists turn out. Here it’s Marty’s murderous plans double-crossed by Visser, and then characters not knowing what is truly going on or who did what or who is who – it even ends with Visser’s laugh when Abby mistakes him for Ray, Visser deliciously uttering mock-politely as he lies bleeding in the bathroom: “If I see him, I'll sure give him the message.” (That’s all I will say about the plot if you haven’t seen the movie, just watch). It’s this offbeat, mordant, but very human humor mixed with startling bursts of violence and striking, singular style (Barry Sonnenfeld as cinematographer – his first narrative feature film) that makes this 1984 neo-noir directed, written and produced by Joel and Ethan Coen (their first movie) still feel so refreshingly alive. Yes, alive, even as almost everyone in this movie is likely gonna die soon (I won’t say who). As some 1980s and 1990s neo-noirs show their age, or feel too soaked in their own style for the sake of style, Blood Simple remains timeless.

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The title is taken from Dashiell Hammett’s “Red Harvest”: “This damned burg's getting me. If I don't get away soon I'll be going blood-simple like the natives.” But as frequently stated, the picture is very much inspired by James M. Cain (whom the Coen’s revere – as they’re quoted via Ronald Bergan’s informative “The Coen Brothers”: “We’ve always thought that up at Low Library at Columbia University, where the names are chiseled up there above the columns of stone—Aristotle, Herodotus, Virgil—that the fourth one should be Cain.” Bergan says they’re being hyperbolic and he’s probably right but I am not so sure…)

As Bergan states, however, the picture isn’t as sexy as Cain, and he’s right. And this is to the film’s benefit – it’s not trying too hard to be hot, it’s not doling out a bunch of clichés aping pulp and noirs that were very sexy (as Cain could be), that make a few neo-noirs of the 80’s and 90’s now feels silly and forced. Decisions were made here that were smart – the “femme fatale” doesn’t come sashaying into an office gussied up or speaking in sexy low tones, rather, she looks like a normal but very pretty woman. There are no “let’s be noir” saxophone or saxophone-like moments and instead the music, by Carter Burwell (his first, marking a long future collaboration with the Coen’s), is melancholic and haunting. Even the constant sound of the ceiling fan and the neon-bathed bar go beyond just the style and remarks more on the film’s sad beauty, its tension and mood – it is suffocating over sensual. And the final shootout is visually bravura, scary and wonderfully bizarre. And even funny. The filmmakers respect the genre (and continued working within it or in movies that contained element of it  –  among them – Miller’s Crossing, Barton Fink, Fargo, The Man Who Wasn’t There, and No Country For Old Men which brought them back to Texas) but also see how inherently funny and absurd it can become. And without slipping into parody, which, in one early interview, Joel Coen makes a point to clarify: “We never looked at it as a parody though, from our point of view we were always attempting to do sort of a fairly straight-forward thriller, we just wanted it to be as humorous as possible.”   

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There is indeed something humorous about how much these lonely characters will endure and then, something truly exciting about how much they try (and fuck up). Walsh (who is brilliant here – all suited up with that cowboy hat, shit-eating grin, and driving that VW bug) says something that is both resilient and gross, and also hilarious: “Give me a call whenever you wanna cut off my head. I can always crawl around without it.” In a weirdly, effectively disgusting way, Walsh’s Visser becomes the least lonely character in the movie. Even if he may die, with those fantastic lines he utters, and that laugh, he will leave something – a memorable trail of slime. That’s not nothing.


Happy Birthday Tuesday Weld: Pretty Poison

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“What a week. I met you on Monday, fell in love with you on Tuesday, Wednesday I was unfaithful, Thursday we killed a guy together. How about that for a crazy week, Sue Ann?”

There’s a scene in Noel Black’s 1968 Pretty Poison that’s so unnerving and memorable, it still makes a viewer feel off balance today. Tuesday Weld’s beautiful 17-year-old high school majorette named Sue Ann Stepanek has just bashed some poor night watchman on the side of the head – twice – and he lies on the ground, bleeding, near dead. She and her new boyfriend, disturbed but sensitive Dennis Pitt (Anthony Perkins), have been mucking around at the chemical plant he has been working for (and was fired from) on one of their dates/clandestine “missions.” Dennis is loosening a chute that dumps chemical waste into the town’s water supply and at the same time, filling Sue Ann’s head with lies that he’s a spy for the CIA – she’s excited to help him. She’s really excited.

She loves the intrigue and the mischief, and she loves to rebel. She loathes her mother (when her mother slapped her earlier that night, Sue Ann slapped her right back) and she’s not keen on rules (save for Dennis’s “classified” commands she delights in). And she is her own person. That is for sure. She is, indeed, her own kind of person.

But as Dennis is messing with the chute, the night factory guard, Sam (whom Dennis seems to like), catches him. Dennis stares back terrified – for good reason – he’s recently been released from a mental institution. He’s a man (presumably in his 20s, or early 20s – Perkins was 35 at the time) with a record, a past arsonist who accidentally set his aunt – and her home – on fire (he was 15 then). He’s got a parole officer, Morton Azenauer (John Randolph), who is kind and patient with him. But Dennis – playing around with these spy games with this young woman – and now a nice old man’s got his skull bashed with a monkey wrench? He’s got a lot to be scared of.

DownloadSue Ann, on the other hand, does not seem to be scared of anything. In the universe of Pretty Poison, with its tree-lined, white-picket-fenced setting (the film was shot in Great Barrington, Massachusetts) this might seem surprising, that is, if a person were to apply the common standards of how society thinks of young women (and how they likely do in this town). She’s a remarkably beautiful girl with lovely hair (I always think of Nick Cave singing about blonde teenage murderess, Lottie, from “The Curse of Millhaven” – “My hair is yellow and I’m always a-combing, la la-la-la, la la-la-lie. Mama often told me that we all got to die!”). She’s a straight-A student with a bright future ahead of her. So, she, out there at night with her disturbed boyfriend who has led her into this bad scene – she should worry for her future. She should bemoan over why he dragged her into this. But she doesn’t. And she thinks fast. She calmly, deliberately, brains old Sam, blood oozing all over his face. She seems a little proud of herself too. Like she just solved a relatively hard algebra equation.

Sue Ann: I hit him twice. You see he started to go down and then I bopped him on the side of the head. Oh … he sure is bleeding, isn’t he?

Dennis: Yeah…

Sue Ann: The C.I.A. does cover this kind of stuff, doesn’t it? Hmm?

Dennis: Uh … Yeah … sometimes

Sue Ann: Well, what should we do? (Dennis pulls Sue Ann to him to hug her) You’re sweating.

Dennis: You’re cool.

You’re cool. As in her skin temperature. As in her soul. As in he still loves her. It’s all spinning out of control for Dennis, who thought he was in control with her. So… there she goes… Without asking or alerting the freaked-out Dennis, Sue Ann, with all of her sociopathic common sense and know-how, takes the night watchman’s gun out of his pocket (she’ll save that for later), and pushes the dying man’s body into the water. He’s now almost good and dead. And then she sits on his back. To make sure. To drown him.

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This is when the movie, which has already placed us into the unsettling world of Dennis and his problems, his possible craziness, and Sue Ann’s beautiful strangeness (though, before this moment, we didn’t realize just how fucking weird she is), I think, knows it’s perverse. In the black of night, her yellow hair glowing, her pink cardigan and blue and white plaid dress almost sparkling, she sits on top of the dead man’s back, her bare legs splashing in the water – with just a hint of … something, an erotic suggestion. A hint, which is smart because it would seem cheap and exploitative if it were anything else. The hint makes the viewer feel almost as if you imagined it. (We didn’t because later in the film, in a moment of disturbance, Dennis will flash to this same shot, freaked out.) When she’s done drowning the man, she sensibly tells Dennis: “He was dead, Dennis. The chute’s right over him. When it falls down in the morning, they’ll figure that’s what killed him.”

We see her sitting on this poor dead man, smiling, calm. When she makes her way back up to Dennis, she looks down at the body and says smiling, happy: “God, what a night.” When she and Dennis are back in the car after she’s sat in the water on top of the man she just murdered, Sue Ann then pounces on Dennis. She’s excited with blood lust. She wants to make it.

Pretty Poison was Black’s first and best feature (though his Jennifer on My Mind is such a tonally crazy picture, that I’d recommend it for those curious about contending with dead, heroin OD’ed girlfriends; Cover Me Babe is also seriously flawed, yet fascinating. His short, Skaterdater won the Palm D’or at Cannes and was nominated for an Academy Award for best short film in 1966). It has a dark, deadpan wit, scripted by Lorenzo Semple Jr. (the Batman series, The Parallax ViewThe Drowning PoolThree Days of the Condor) and gorgeous, at times, experimental cinematography by David Quaid (The Swimmer). I love how green the picture looks – so lush and pretty – quaint, but with so much existential dread and angst and dysfunction all around. David Lynch might love this movie.

The daylight exteriors of Sue Ann driving a baby blue convertible, Dennis sitting at the hot dog stand talking about murder, Sue Ann in a green dress looking very pretty as she watches, with binoculars, the night watchman’s body being dragged from the water – the light of the picture makes its dark humor all the more unsettling. The danger and ubiquity of poison all around us – both external and internal rot. Another great moment: The gun Sue Ann stole off of the dead night watchman she murdered – we see it again in her teenage room with flowered wallpaper and a framed picture of ballerinas – it’s in a drawer containing a blue curler, bobby pins, pink beads and other teeny things – a darkly humorous tableau of pretty girly normalcy and female rage. She will shoot her mother, four times, with it – a squinting, focused, intent look on her face and with a twisted smile – tongue protruding from her lips like both a kid and a seasoned pro. And then, everything back to relative calm, considering the circumstances, Sue Ann planning how to get rid of the body (though Azenauer will call soon after and Dennis knows he’s going to eventually be blamed for this). I actually thought Sue Ann might eat the breakfast her mother just made for her (she asked for pancakes) directly after killing her. Instead, she wants to have sex with Dennis, whom she says she wants to marry and run off to Mexico with. She’d been packing her bags and picking out dresses to wear before her mother came home. As her mother lies there dead on the staircase, Sue Ann sits on the bed and hugs Dennis, asking: “What do people do as soon as they’re married?”

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Dennis is (was) an arsonist, and since he accidentally killed his aunt as a teenager, he’s served many years away – and knows a thing or two about trauma. He nervously settles into this new town (his boss is an asshole), and he thinks he’s too smart for his job. His parole officer, Azenauer, agrees about his intelligence – but to stop with the crazy, or play-acting crazy, the jokes, and especially the fantasy. Azenauer warns him at the very beginning of the picture: “Believe me, Dennis, you’re going out into a very real and tough world. It’s got no place at all for fantasies.”

And then… a fantasy emerges. In a dizzying sequence, Dennis spies the beautiful Sue Ann Stepanek, first as a drum majorette, and then at a hot dog stand (as we’ll see later, a lot goes down at that hot dog stand). When they first take a drive in her car, she lies and says she’s 18 – but he knows better. OK, she’s in high school and almost 18, she says. He will fall for her – trying to play it cool at first, trying to take control with his games (fantasies), but when he sees her murderous glee, he realizes he’s not driving this relationship anymore. Nevertheless, he can’t leave her.

Dennis continues this routine of both trying to not play by the rules, while also, actually trying to listen to his parole officer. He’s clearly got some unresolved anger and fear going on, and he needs to feel more significant than he actually is. One reason why an impressionable teenage girl would be a target for him. And he really should not be up to this kind of predation. No, she should not.

He’s a broken man, and it’s often quite sad. In an incredible scene, both heartbreaking and then, darkly funny (because of Weld’s brilliant, perfectly timed response ), Perkins’s Dennis reveals to Sue Ann what happened all those years ago with this aunt:

Dennis: I didn’t know she was in the house. I swear I didn’t. See, I’d been playing with some girl next door. Playing doctor or something. Her name was Ursula. And my aunt caught us. [Crying] It wasn’t bad. It wasn’t bad. My aunt beat me with a pile of sticks. So, I took that pile of sticks into the cellar, and I set fire to them, Sue Ann. But I thought my aunt was out. Oh, that poor fool. She sneaked back into the house after she told me she was going out. I guess she hoped to catch me committing lascivious carriage or something, but I didn’t know it, Sue Ann, I didn’t know she was in the house. You see? You see…

Sue Ann: [Smiling] You’re all sweaty when you were the one with experience in killing people.

Dennis: [Sobbing and slightly laughing] Oh, God. Sue Ann. You say such crazy things. Maybe that’s why I love you.

Sue Ann: Cross your heart? Cross your heart?

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Perkins is so impressive in Pretty Poison – funny and creepy and vulnerable and a bit heart-breaking by the end. It’s a fascinating performance – he’s not really crazy, he’s almost play-acting a paranoid schizophrenic (he listens to radio shows in Russian, and, as said, comes on to Sue Ann through boastful lies about his work with the CIA.), so his actions just leave a question mark, in an intriguing way. As director Black said to writer, Perkins’s biographer, Ronald Bergan in 1994: “He had enormous charm and intelligence, the very qualities I wanted to come through in the role he would be playing. I was looking for the young Tony of Friendly Persuasion and Fear Strikes Out, not Psycho, although commentators naturally made the comparison between Norman Bates and the character in Pretty Poison.”

He’s not really like Norman Bates, though there’s a sex-death dysfunction he’s grown up with. But it’s as if he has no other way but to act crazy because that’s what everyone expects of him. But why pretend all this? Because no one ever believed him before? And fantasies aren’t always a bad thing, even if Azenauer  warns him against them. But this world – Azenauer is right – it doesn’t like those indulging in fantasy so much. As Noel Black said (in a Los Angeles Times story), Perkins’s Dennis is “a Walter Mitty type who comes up against a teeny-bopper Lady Macbeth.”

The act “works” to a certain extent because Sue Ann, likely bored out of her skull from typical boys who’ve romanced her, taken her to dumb dances and copped feels in cars, and who is also clearly damaged herself (her home life is unstable, her mother, doing what she wants, fine, but not necessarily protective, more just repressive to her daughter) is drawn to Dennis. Sue Ann sleeps with the twitchy mystery man (the first guy she’s “made it” with, though, when she brings up a sailor in a photo who creepily looks a lot older than she is, she might be lying – and we wonder if that was something unpleasant for her) and she also falls in love with him.

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Or so she says. We are never sure if she really had any feelings for him. We get the sense that she could have planned a trap this whole time. That she knew, from the very beginning, that he was lying. Or, if she started to catch wind of his lies or got bored, she flipped the switch. The easy read on Sue Ann is that she’s a stone-cold psycho, a bad seed, but she’s also a damaged, enraged young woman with a power and a magnetism all of her own. There’s surely a reason she’s got anger. Yes, she’s mad at her mother, but Dennis becoming her new boyfriend so quickly, thinking he can manipulate her and mold her to what he wants (which will backfire on him in major way – obviously), even if she says she’s in love and wants to run away with him and all that, his attempt to trick her – this probably, deep down, really pisses her off.

Pretty Poison is also tapping into the gorgeous off-center appeal of Weld, while testing our crush on Thalia from Dobie Gillis. She holds so much more – some kind of secret – a joke or a specific knowledge, maybe arcane knowledge, that only she knew but was keeping it to herself. You just try to find out what it is. (Watch other wonderful, complex Weld performances: Soldier in the RainPlay It as It LaysWho’ll Stop the RainLooking for Mr. GoodbarOnce Upon a Time in AmericaThief, and more) Those mysterious eyes, sometimes placid sometimes excited, her curiosity, vulnerability and strength, and beauty mixed with her intelligence and, in Pretty Poison, fascinating wickedness.

Weld was (and still is) cool. You completely get why Sam Shepard, after seeing her on a talk show wrote in “Motel Chronicles:” “Tuesday Weld appeared in bare feet and a full shirt and the interviewer (I think it was David Susskind) spent the whole time putting her down for having bare feet on his show and how this was a strong indication of her neurotic immaturity and need for attention. I fell in love with Tuesday Weld on that show. I thought she was the Marlon Brando of women.”

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She does have that Marlon Brando cool and complexity – but she is a woman and to be the Marlon Brando of women in the 1960s, and particularly the late 50s and early 60s when she was a young woman and in teeny-bopper roles, probably wasn’t always easy (it’s not always easy at any age). And Weld wouldn’t come off as canned, the well trained good little girl. Nor did she appear to be trying too hard, in spite of what David Susskind apparently thought: “Look how crazy I am.” She had been through some heavy shit in her life – between her mother (if you attempt to read it – the strange, questionable “Daughter Dearest” tell-all “If It’s Tuesday….. I Must Be DEAD!” written by Samuel Veta who states that Weld’s mother, Aileen (Yosene) Ker Weld, gave her “blessing” and “narrated” and “supervised” the book, and that “much was taken from her [Ker Weld’s] daily diaries” before Ker Weld died seems only indicative of dysfunction Tuesday Weld must deal with, even beyond her mother – that this was even put out there by Veta), her relationships, her past struggles with alcohol and depression (she had discussed this in earlier interviews – she has for a long time now, remained very private), and her apparent need for freedom – this wasn’t a woman who was just playing a “bad girl.” And she wasn’t just a bad girl; she was going through turmoil.  She also had a rebellious spirit. She likely still does.

Actress Carol Lynley (Blue Denim, Bunny Lake is Missing), went to school with young Tuesday Weld and Sandra Dee – they were her friends. But as she told Dodd Darin in his book “Dream Lovers: The Magnificent Shattered Lives of Bobby Darin and Sandra Dee,”  Weld and Dee (a talented actress who also knew darkness and suffered many traumas herself – this could be an entire essay on its own) were very different. Dee and Weld couldn’t really gel as friends. Lynley said: “Mary [Dee’s mother] and Sandy were very much the same type of woman…. They both had full skirts and coiffed hair, and my best friend, Tuesday, and I didn’t get this at all. Tuesday had a switchblade knife when she was ten, to give you some kind of idea.”

By the time of Pretty Poison, Weld had already been presented by the press (and sometimes by herself) as a notorious Lolita figure (even though she was in her 20s by the time of Pretty Poison). George Axelrod’s Lord Love a Duck had toyed with this in a surprisingly transgressive cashmere orgasm scene involving her laughing-lunatic incest-ready father, Max Showalter (a gloriously insane moment). She’d even turned down Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita saying of her choice, “I didn’t have to play it. I was Lolita.”

Famously Weld turned down many roles, including Bonnie and ClydeBob & Carol & Ted & AliceRosemary’s Baby, and more). As she said in a New York Times interview with Guy Flatley, “I may be self-destructive, but I like taking chances with movies. I like challenges, and I also like the particular position I’ve been in all these years, with people wanting to save me from the awful films I’ve been in. I’m happy being a legend. I think the Tuesday Weld cult is a very nice thing.”

She also said in that same interview, “Do I have hard feelings toward my mother? I hate my mother!”

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Many critics loved Pretty Poison (including Pauline Kael), but the movie made the studio nervous – it was just too strange – and it didn’t do well. Stranger than Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde a year before (which Pretty Poison is often compared to). Though Pretty Poison does contain an anti-establishment bent, it doesn’t have the same kind of romance. Bonnie and Clyde came together as equals in many ways, and we could not help but fall for them, their glamour, their mythology, and we wound up rooting for them, no matter what. Pretty Poison more resembles a slight inverse of Terrence Malick’s later Badlands with Weld becoming Martin Sheen (though Weld and Perkins are less romantic, cagier, even as their chemistry is strangely perfect, just as it was later – as damaged friends in Frank Perry’s Play It as It Lays, a movie I love and wrote about here – they are magnificent, brilliant together). Weld’s Sue Ann is a little more of a Peggy Cummins in Joseph H. Lewis’s masterful Gun Crazy – she takes over – but, still, there’s no one quite like Sue Ann Stepanek. Last year, J. Hoberman wrote a terrific piece about both Pretty Poison and Gun Crazy, writing, “It’s no surprise that Gun Crazy, like Pretty Poison, attained cult status in the late 1960s when it was said that violence was as American as cherry pie.”

You see this cheery, and, as Hoberman said, “cherry pie,” craziness as Sue Ann, after she killed the night watchman, amped up on adrenaline and excitement, is all over Dennis in her cute blue convertible. But, scary for the couple, two police officers shine a light on them. What’s going on in here? She never seems terribly frightened, which makes her seem all the more dangerous. But she’s, again, taking over.

The police don’t like this guy with this young woman in the car at night and question them. So, Sue Ann drives home on her own (Sue Ann is always doing the driving) while Dennis sits in the back of a police car, downcast. What a night indeed. She’s taking them to her mother’s house – to make the police make sure it’s all OK. Mrs. Stepanek (a terrific, harsh Beverly Garland), who likes to entertain men in her house (which, as said, could be fine – Sue Ann hates it, so we wonder what kind of things she’s has had to put up with, what might stoke her anger), assures the police it’s OK.

But Mrs. Stepanek doesn’t like Dennis and didn’t like Dennis from the get-go. But she clearly doesn’t want the cops sniffing around her house or any extra trouble in her life. She also wants to take care of getting Dennis out of Sue Ann’s life, herself. “You’re one lucky kid, buster,” the cop says, annoyed they can’t bust him on anything. The cop continues, “If I were you, I’d get down on my knees to this woman.” It’s a morbidly amusing moment because, once the police leave, Mrs. Stepanek calls Sue Ann a “dumb little slut.” She looks at Dennis, and after revealing to him that she knows he had fibbed to her earlier, she snarls, “Well, what’s the matter? Don’t you have any nice lies already?” You can’t bullshit this woman. She then demands that he get out. He walks out in the night, and looks back at the house, observing the forms of Sue Ann and her mother near the door. He hears Mrs. Stepanek yell, “Why, you tramp!” She slaps Sue Ann. What does Sue Ann do? Sue Ann laughs.

It all starts rolling down and down and down after that. Almost as if Dennis knows he’s done for, but he’s just going with the dreaded flow – the flow that will land him back in the slammer.

So now Dennis is debris- flotsam – trailing in the wake of Sue Ann’s ship. After killing the guard, and showing rage for her mother, Sue Ann amps up the carnage by shooting mom, point blank, and killing her with glee. This is all too much for Dennis (he cowers in the bathroom), but he loves Sue Ann and agrees to dump the mother’s body. He doesn’t though – he goes to a payphone and calls the police, on himself.  He already knows he is doomed.

And he is right: Sue Ann is picked up and blames it all on him – easily – her lies come without a flinch, as if she’s convinced herself they’re true within minutes.

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But we see in Perkins’s emotional look at Weld – his pained but loving eyes – that Dennis still loves her, even while watching her lie, and he tells her just that as he’s carted away. In some ways it speaks to what the picture satirizes: a predatory man taking on a teenage girl, and his predation turns on him. She’s so far advanced, so much angrier than he is, and she’s likely had to shove it in her whole life, that the idea of this malleable innocent is shattered. But, more pointedly, the movie doesn’t attack Sue Ann for her lack of cliched innocence (and I think – good for her), while it shows empathy for Dennis, but it’s not endorsing him either. He’s indulging in fantasy and that cracks wide open. We wonder if he’ll create a whole fantasy life about Sue Ann when he’s locked away – one in which he’s important again.

And, yet, Dennis also seems to love Sue Ann even more for her darkness – even as he is horrified. She’s clever, her mind constantly working; she’s one step ahead (again, part of Weld’s appeal as an actress: that intelligent, darker interior, her beguiling surprises, she’s so much more and we see that instantly, even before she speaks). But how does he feel about himself loving her so much? There’s a reason why, in a fit of Raskolnikovian guilt and dread, Dennis later flashes back to that image of her splashing in the water on the dead man’s back – he’s terrified and probably a little turned on, and he probably feels guilty for being turned on. That wasn’t fantasy, that moment, that was real.

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In some ways, Weld’s Sue Ann isn’t just pretty poison, she’s what lies underneath America’s heartland – the fantasy, to bring that up again – where pretty, blonde high school girls are supposed to be “good” but were not, are not, and should not have to be.

Sue Ann could be read as a reflection of the late 1960s “good” girl turning towards the counter-culture – the good girl going wild or giving the finger to the system. But there’s also direct, real female anger here, thanks to Weld’s performance, who fearlessly, mercurially, plays Sue Ann without trying to make her likable. She gets the humor, and she gets the rage, the madness -sometimes flowing within these emotions in a single scene – and she gets how people are much more terrified by a young woman acting this way. Norman Bates famously said, “We all go a little mad sometimes.” Sue Ann would agree, shrug, laugh – and then clean up the blood before taking her history exam.

How about that for a crazy week, Sue Ann?

Originally published at the New Beverly


Lizabeth Scott & Too Late For Tears

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A somewhat short riff on Too Late for Tears... 

“I let you in because, well, housewives can get awfully bored sometimes…”

“What is it, Jane? I just don’t understand you.” So asks Arthur Kennedy’s upright husband to Lizabeth Scott’s kinked, cryptic wife in Byron Haskin’s Too Late for Tears, a movie as much about one woman suffering her own private hell (infernal boredom with the late 1940’s bonds of traditional marriage, a disgust with patronizing rich people) as it is about a coveted bag of loot. And of course, murder – murder enacted by this “femme fatale” who hides her new furs in the place her husband wouldn’t look and she likely loathes – the kitchen. (He, in fact, finds them and confronts her, and this is where I wonder if he spends more time in the kitchen than she does – which makes me like him more) But she’s not hiding her luxury pieces because she bought them with just his money. The money, in many ways, is her money. Money that quite literally dropped into her lap (dropped into the back seat of her car). Money he is nervous about. Money he didn’t earn. Money she wants to keep. Money that, for her, means freedom from convention. Money means security and fun. For her. He views it with understandable apprehension. He states: “I just don’t understand you,” and you ask yourself if he ever did.

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The movie opens with Kennedy’s Alan and Scott’s Jane driving to a swanky get together one evening in Los Angeles. Jane, cool and beautiful and at times otherworldly in that distinct and timeless Lizabeth Scott way (she’s both dreamy-eyed and steely, rough voiced and soft, vulnerable and determinedly self-sufficient, smart as hell and spacey), objects to attending. Why? She’s says why. And she's pretty honest about it.

Jane: I... I tried to tell you before we left home. I... I just don't like being patronized, that's all. I... I don't think I can take another evening of it.

Alan: Patronized? Oh, sweetheart, Ralph is one of the nicest guys I...

Jane: You know it isn't Ralph. It's his diamond-studded wife, looking down her nose at me like... like her big ugly house up there looks down on Hollywood. Please. I'm just not going. Slow down and find a place to turn.

Alan: Oh, Jane, you're crazy. Alice likes you.

Jane: Please, Alan. I mean it. I'm just not going.

They don’t go to that "patronizing" party because at that very moment, as Jane physically attempts to get him to turn the car around, a bag of loot is thrown into the back of their car by a mysterious sender. God? The devil? Whoever it is -- of all the good luck. And bad luck. When Jane discovers their devil-god-given bounty, she takes charge in a way that befuddles her husband and delights the viewer (we can’t help it  -- Scott makes her such a strange pleasure). Alan never saw this side of her before? He knows her financial frustrations, but what the hell does he think his wife does all day while he’s at work? Stare at recipes of meatloaf? Gleefully chat with his sister who lives next door? It’s not that you don’t feel for Alan, you do (and especially up to the point where she does him in – in one of those little boats in Westlake Park). And as Alan watches Jane becoming more and more obsessive, you start sensing a fatalism in him too. Not just because of her, but because of what he’s supposed to mean as a man— and as a provider. Or, perhaps, what he’s supposed to mean as a good person. Alan wants to report the money to the police, and Jane wants to keep it. So, when the two return home, managing to get past the real recipients and the cops, they empty out the estimated 100 thousand on the bed. Alan is concerned. Jane is practically orgasmic with all of that green luxuriating on the sheets. Surely, to her, this is a more exciting action than anything she’s ever seen or done on that mattress.

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And then Dan Duryea shows up… Not right then but a few days later. Duryea’s Danny walks into Jane’s apartment and starts asking far too many questions -- but she maintains her cool. He takes in lovely Jane and as he gets to know her (or thinks he gets to know her) and begins gathering information that her husband may be cluelessly unaware of – that this lady is crooked, perhaps evil (maybe discontent?). Danny likes it. It gets him going. But Too Late for Tears (written by Roy Huggins from his serialized Saturday Evening Post novel) doesn’t cook up some rote hot-to-trot attraction between them. Never do we think Jane ever gets off on the bad boy sexuality of Danny, instead, she senses something else in him – weakness, depression, that’s he’s not as much the bad boy as he looks. And he’s not. Danny may come in all Duryea sleazy-cool, rolling his menacing words like a verbal cocked eyebrow, but you wind up feeling heartbroken for him thanks to Duryea’s vulnerable, moving performance. He’s two-bit, desperate, he drinks too much and he’s messed up even before he met Jane. He’s not even that great of a crook. We watch him unravel as he’s bettered by Jane time and again until he collapses, poisoned by her in his crummy little apartment. His female neighbor, maybe sometimes lover (we wonder – she seems to care more about him than anyone else does), doesn’t even assume foul play as the cops question her.  She exclaims: “He killed himself. Oh, God have mercy on him."  She cries. He didn’t kill himself, but in the fatalistic world of Too Late for Tears, he kind of did.

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Which leads us back to Jane. She’s high tailed it to Mexico. I haven’t even mentioned the annoying man following her (played by Don DeFore – the most unlikable “good” guy and no one you care about) who knows her even deeper secret (that she murdered her first husband before Alan). I like to block that guy out because, honestly, you are, at this point, rooting for Jane.  Maybe you're not supposed to, but I think the movie actually knows this, in spite of how bad she is. How many women, especially when this film was released (1949) yearned to run away from home with 100K? And today, the viewer is asking similar questions – wouldn’t we be tempted by dirty money thrown into our car? At least for a second? Jane is murderous, yes, and we take a moment to lament when Alan and especially sad Danny are disposed of, but the remarkable Lizabeth Scott is such an intriguing presence, so diabolical, yet so dazed, so elusive, but so understandably disgruntled – a woman whom men want to mold as either the perfect wife or the perfect femme fatale (Danny coos: “Don't ever change, tiger. I don't think I'd like you with a heart.”) – that we cheer for her to smash all of those male preconceptions she's been saddled with. She’s all herself and she’s all she’s got. And so, in spite of her evil deeds, we want her to make it in Mexico. Seeing her in a nice hotel, in her elegant gown, gorgeous and in charge, with a new gentleman on her arm (she declines any nighttime offer – there is a suitcase of money upstairs after all), we think, for a moment, “Jane has made it! She made it!” We know she's going to eventually suffer for it, so we give ourselves that moment to allow Jane her freedom, even if she's done such terrible things. 

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The picture swirls into a mad melodramatic dreamscape that, to me, becomes a kind of allegory of one housewife’s single-minded attempt to bust out of the binding expectations placed on her. I once compared the picture’s ending to Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing, in which another damn suitcase aids in the protagonist’s downfall. But Sterling Hayden, watching his money fly all over the tarmac, looks at it and says “Eh, what’s the difference?” Scott, instead, trips over her’s and tumbles off the hotel room terrace. It’s shocking and yet graceful.  She’s not watching the green fly away with the fatalistic acceptance of Hayden – no – she goes down together with it. She goes down with what she loves. At least she went down with that. And even in death, she creates a gorgeous tableau: clad in an evening gown, smashed on the cement, but looking like an angel, there is all of that money, her money, falling around her like snow. What’s the difference? She’s not getting married again, that’s for sure.


Happy Birthday Marilyn Monroe

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Happy Birthday, Marilyn Monroe.

Here's a letter Thomas Pynchon wrote to his former Cornell friend and roommate, writer Jules Siegel, in the early 1960s. MM is brought up -- she "got out of the game" as Pynchon wrote.  Siegel published a portion of the letter in a 1965 issue of Cavalier magazine. He wrote that, "Pynchon, hiding out from the world in Mexico City, wrote on blue-line graph paper to a suicidal writer friend." 

Pynchon:

"When Marilyn Monroe got out of the game, I wrote something like, 'Southern California's special horror notwithstanding, if the world offered nothing, nowhere to support or make bearable whatever her private grief was, then it is that world, and not she, that is at fault.'

"I wrote that in the first few shook-up minutes after hearing the bulletin sandwiched in between Don and Phil Everly and surrounded by all manner of whoops and whistles coming out of an audio signal generator, like you are apt to hear on the provincial radio these days. But I don't think I'd take those words back.

"The world is at fault, not because it is inherently good or bad or anything but what it is, but because it doesn't prepare us in anything but body to get along with.

"Our souls it leaves to whatever obsolescences, bigotries, theories of education workable and un, parental wisdom or lack of it, happen to get in its more or less Brownian (your phrase) pilgrimage between the cord-cutting ceremony and the time they slide you down the chute into the oven, while the guy on the Wurlitzer plays Aba Daba Honeymoon because you had once told somebody it was the nadir of all American expression; only they didn't know what nadir meant but it must be good because of the vehemence with which you expressed yourself."

And here's my piece on Marilyn for the Los Angeles Review of Books -- how she was on my mind, and everywhere, even on a blanket in Death Valley...